Authors: Eric Newby
A MERRY DANCE
THE BEST OF
BIRTH OF A TRAVELLER
Births, Marriages, Deaths
– On the 6th December at 3 Castelnau Mansions, Barnes, SW13, to Hilda Newby, wife of Geo. A. Newby – a son.
IN THIS EXTRAVAGANT
fashion – altogether it cost 50p ($1.95)
, at a time when Lady Secretaries with shorthand and typing were earning around £3.50 ($13.65) a week – my arrival was announced on the following Tuesday, 9 December, in
, two of the daily newspapers my father ‘took in’ at that period. The other was the
, then a rather genteel paper, which he ordered for my mother, but never looked at himself, and which she passed on to the cook/housekeeper when she had finished with it. From then on it was also passed on to a nurse.
At 3.45 a.m., the ghastly hour I chose, or rather the doctor chose, for my arrival – I had to be hauled out by the head – conditions must have been pretty beastly in Barnes. It was a dark and stormy night, with a fresh wind from the west whose gusts would have been strong enough to blow clouds of spray from the big reservoir (which was opposite our flat by the bridge and which has now been filled in to make playing fields for St Paul’s School) over the pavement and right across the main road (which was called Castelnau but which all the inhabitants knew and know to this day as Castlenore) as it always did when the wind was strong from that particular quarter, sometimes, but rarely at 3.45 a. m. wetting unwary pedestrians and people travelling in open motor cars.
And it was certainly dark, although the moon had been up for more than thirteen hours and was only a day off full. It would be nice, more romantic, altogether more appropriate for a potential traveller, to think of myself arriving astride the Centaur, and, Sagittarius being in the ascendant, perhaps carrying the latter’s arrows for him, as we moved across a firmament in which ragged clouds were racing across the path of a huge and brilliant moon; but it was not to be. It was ordained that I should be a child not only of darkness but of utter darkness, of ten-tenths cloud.
When it dawned, the day was even more rumbustious than the night. And when the sun rose, just before eight o’clock, like the moon, it remained invisible. Thunderstorms visited many parts of the country, accompanied by hail, sleet or snow and west or north-westerly winds which reached gale force in high places. In Lincolnshire, the Belvoir Hunt, having ‘chopped a fox’ in Foston Spinney (seized it before it fairly got away from cover), ‘were hunting another from Allington when scent was totally swept away by a tremendous rainstorm’.
‘Flying Prospects’ on my birthday were not good, according to
. It is now difficult to imagine that a pilot, or even a passenger, might actually buy a newspaper in order to find out whether it was safe to ‘go up’, but it must have been so, otherwise there would have been no point in publishing the information at all. ‘Unsuitable for aviation or fit only for short distance flying by the heaviest sort of machine’ was what the communiqué said. ‘Sea Passages’ were equally disagreeable. The English Channel was rough, with winds reaching forty miles an hour, and there was extensive flooding in France.
But if the weather was disturbed that Saturday, it was as nothing compared with the state of great chunks of Europe and northern Asia. In spite of the fact that the advertising department of
had chosen this particular Saturday to announce
‘PRESENTS SUGGESTIONS FOR THE GREAT PEACE CHRISTMAS’,
on it Latvians were fighting Germans, on whom they had declared war a week previously on 28 November, and so were the Lithuanians. In Russia, on the Don and between Voronezh and Kirsk and in Asia, beyond the Urals, along the line of the Trans-Siberian Railway, where typhus was raging, Bolsheviks and White Russians were engaged in a civil war of the utmost ferocity. Meanwhile, that same Saturday, while their fellow countrymen were destroying one another, with their country in ruins and becoming every day more ruinous, Lenin and Trotsky and the 1109 delegates of the Seventh All-Russian Congress of Soviets passed a resolution to the effect that ‘The Soviet Union Desires to Live in Peace with All Peoples’. On that day, too, Lenin told the Congress that ‘Communistic Principles were being utterly disregarded by the Russian peasantry.’
That day, too, much nearer home, while I was taking my first nourishment, as it were, in the open air, French Army units with heavy guns were rumbling across the Rhine bridges in order to force the Germans to ratify the peace treaty which they had signed at Versailles in June; and in the same issue of
which carried the headline about
‘THE GREAT PEACE CHRISTMAS’,
there were other headlines such as
‘GUNS ACROSS THE RHINE’
although who was to fight another war with millions killed and wounded, armies in a state of semi-demobilization, and millions more dying or soon to die from sickness and starvation was not clear. Nevertheless, that weekend, the only thing, theoretically, that stood between the protagonists and another outbreak of war, was the Armistice, signed in a French railway carriage parked in a wood, thirteen months previously, so that, equally theoretically, it would simply have meant carrying on with the old one. That weekend, too, the Americans quitted the peace conference.
There was, altogether, a lot about death in the papers that Saturday. It was as if Death the Reaper, an entity embodied by cartoonists in their drawings as a hideous, skeletal figure, and it would have been difficult to have lived through the last five years without thinking of death as such, had become dissatisfied with his efforts, had once again sharpened his scythe and was already cutting fresh, preliminary swathes through the debilitated populations of the vanquished powers, as if the great influenza epidemic, which reached its peak in Britain in March 1919, and which altogether killed more people in Europe than all the shot and shell of four and a half years of war, had not been enough.
In Britain, that Saturday, things were rather different. Bank rate was six per cent, exports were booming. On Friday, the US dollar closed at $3.90 to the pound. The only disquieting news that morning, and that was more or less a rumour, was that there was a possibility of a number of pits being forced to close in the South Wales anthracite fields.
Altogether, for many people that Saturday, life seems to have gone on much as it had done before the Deluge. Giddy and Giddy, House Agents, offered a luxuriously furnished town house, facing Hyde Park, with thirteen bed and dressing-rooms for £26.25 ($102.40) a week. Harrods announced Laroche champagne, 1911, the last vintage generally available (shipped) since the war, at £6.50 ($25.35) a dozen. Very old vintage port (Tuke Holdsworth) was £4.50 ($17.55) a dozen. Not advertised in
, but still listed in Harrods’ enormous current catalogue, (and for some years to come) under ‘Livery’, were red plush breeches for footmen.
Domestic servants were still comparatively inexpensive, although more difficult to find, than they had been before the war. That Saturday Lady Baldwin, of 37 Cavendish Square, advertised for a housemaid, ‘five maids and a boy kept, wages £28-£30 ($109-$117) a year’. And there were vacancies for live-in under nurses, at £25 ($97.50) a year, the price of a high-class baby carriage of the sort that my mother had acquired for me.
That Saturday, too, wholesale garment manufacturers, at what was, and still is, known as ‘the better end of the trade’, the sort of firm my father was a partner in, were advertising jobs in their workrooms for bodice and skirt makers at around £2.50 ($9.75) for a five and a half day, forty-nine hour week (8.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. week-days, 8.30 a.m to 12.30 p.m. Saturdays), £130 ($507) a year, which made the 5op spent on announcing my birthday seem hideously extravagant.
That Saturday some London fashion houses, including the then ultra-fashionable Lucile, in Hanover Square, were advertising for ‘Model Girls’, in emulation of Paul Poiret, the Parisian designer, who had just returned from the army and for the first time showed clothes on living models.
A sketch in
that Saturday shows that clothes were good-looking, if not positively saucy. Dresses, according to their fashion correspondent, were
, sometimes dangerously low’, in brilliant colours, with tight, mid-calf-length skirts. Jet was high fashion for the evening: embroidered on coloured velvet, used for making girdles and shoulder straps. Feathers, which had been used for years for making headdresses for evening, were being replaced by flowers, ‘as little like nature as possible?’, although another couple of years were to pass before the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act became law. The ultra-fashionable were already wearing the long, skimpy jerseys which were to become a sort of hallmark of the 1920s; but there was nothing about them in the papers the day I was born.
Yet in spite of all this display of what an American politician described as ‘normalcy’, ‘The Great War’, as it would still be referred to by the British far into the next one, although over, must have seemed terribly close to most people, as it still must do today to anyone reading some of the classified advertisements which appeared in the quality papers that Saturday. The request for a lady or gentleman to play once a week at a
in a hospital for shell-shocked officers. The offers to keep soldiers’ graves trimmed and lay headstones in the neighbourhood of Albert, Bapaume and Péronne – the dead had not yet been gathered together in communal cemeteries. The endless columns of advertisements inserted by ex-servicemen, under ‘Situations Wanted’ (there were 350,000 of them unemployed), part of the huge citizen army of the still living that was being demobilized into a world in which, in spite of there being whole generations of dead, there was not enough work for all. Such advertisements, inserted by ex-officers, warrant officers, petty officers, NCOs and men of superior education (the labouring classes did not advertise their services in this way), were some of them despairing, some of them pathetic, some of them hopeless: